written by Maria Neumann
The step-by-step process of remediation after a residential building fire.
“Thank Goodness we have just had a fire!” said no one ever. In fact, the only thing every fire victim has in common is an almost incomprehensible sense of loss and quite often real shock. Fires can be started by the tenant (cooking fires, smoking, candles, kids playing with matches, barbecues, flammable liquids and lighting) or structural (faulty wiring or heating) and 4% of property damage fires are started by lightening. Statistically, there is a 1 in 3,000 chance of having your building catch fire. Sigh.
So the firemen have drenched the residence and the tenant is sitting with his head in his hands. What happens now?
Secure the Building
The building must be secured. You can’t risk, for example, teenagers camping out in the ruins or looters looking for valuables. Imagine the lawsuit if the roof caved in on them. Most board-up companies are available 24/7 and can install a fence around the property if necessary and arrange temporary utilities. If there is a chance of rain in the foreseeable future, get the building tarped, even if the building was drenched as the fireman put out the fire.
Chances are, you will meet some “fire chasers.” There are three classes of people who may contact you after a fire. 1) Kind people who want to help and who work for a reputable company. 2) Ruthless people who work for slime balls who want your money. 3) Public adjusters who can be in either camp. At this point in the process, you are looking for someone to “board up” and secure the property only. When you select someone to board up the property, read their contracts carefully, and don’t let the tenant sign anything. There is still plenty of time to decide on who you will hire for remediation and restoration. Don’t make any big decisions until you have time to research your options.
Make Sure the Building is Safe
Schedule the Department of Building Inspection to come and make sure the building is structurally sound. The fire department will usually “red tag” the building immediately, but in the case that they don’t, don’t assume it is structurally sound. Even if SFFD doesn’t red tag, contact DBI. This is your biggest risk for liability.
Next, you’ll most likely need to have the building tested for hazardous materials, such as asbestos and lead. Testing is required for commercial buildings and residential buildings built before 1980 that don’t have written proof that the structure and finishes have been tested and cleared. Don’t take anyone’s word for it without testing. It is likely that there is asbestos in ceiling tiles, popcorn ceilings, pipe and duct insulation, dry wall tape, floor tiles, and adhesives. Once these hazardous materials burn, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) go airborne and the fire hoses spread them everywhere.
Hire a certified hygienist in environmental testing who can provide results with 24 hours or testing. Do not contract a hygienist that also provides remediation services so there is no conflict of interest—you only want the hygienist to test. Do not let anyone, even the tenants, into the building until you are 100% sure the environment is hazard-free. Tenants will want to retrieve laptops, drivers licenses, wedding photos, et cetera—be adamant in denying them entry without the go ahead from the environmental hygienist. This is your second biggest liability.
If your building tests positive for hazardous materials, vet and hire an independent hazardous remediation company to rid of VOCs. This should be handled quickly. You won’t be able to move forward until this is complete. Your remediation contractor needs to get going as soon as possible to keep mold from growing, which will absolutely happen after three days.
Inform the insurance company of the incident, but don’t just turn the job of remediation over to them. They have preferred vendors, but ultimately, those vendors work for the insurance company—not you. Take remediation vendor recommendations from them, but vet their recommendations just as you would anyone else you hire. Section 2695.9 of the California Insurance code reads “(b) No insurer shall require that the insured have the property repaired by a specific individual or entity.”
Otherwise, work closely with your insurance company and provide them with the necessary information and documentation to get the most from your policy. Make sure the remediation professionals take photos and videos while they are drying; they should document everything for the insurance company. You do not need approval from your insurance company to choose a contractor, but they must see the scope of work for you to be covered. There is nowhere in the insurance code that says you must get three bids, though they will often ask for them. Insurance companies are required to get the home back to its pre-loss condition. It also has to pay for any code upgrades. It does not require you to cut corners or use sub-standard building materials. They will tell you that the company you want to use is outrageous and their bid is astronomical. At this point you need to point them to the insurance code (Cal Code of Regulations 2695.7 and 2695.9) and tell them to take care of you.
In cases where you just cannot get the insurance company to be reasonable, you can hire a lawyer or a public adjuster. Public adjusters will be knocking on your door on any claim over $100,000; their job is to maximize your claim. They can be great and really lower your stress by dealing with the insurance company. The down side is that they get paid by your vendors, usually by taking a percentage. So the vendor has to figure out how to give you what you need without losing money and giving away part of their profits. Usually that brings people back to cutting corners.
For more information on properly insuring your building in case of a fire, turn to page 28.)
As noted above, do not allow your tenants to enter the building until it has been deemed hazard-free by a certified environmental hygienist. Once the building has been cleared, let them know that they must remove their belongings. Hopefully, they have renters insurance to cover the damage of their personal property. You, the property owner, are not responsible for the personal property of residents, even if you are responsible for the fire. If the residents have insurance, they can hire professionals to move their belongings into storage. If they do not have insurance, the remediation company you hire can move their belongings into storage for them—but your insurance might not pay for it.
For detailed instructions on navigating the complicated process of tenant displacement after a building fire, turn to “Up in Flames” on page 20.
Once the building has been deemed hazard-free by a certified environmental hygienist, have your selected remediation company start drying the building and assessing what building materials must be removed. Before you actually have big-ticket items (like floors, walls and cabinets) removed though, get your insurance company on board, let them finish their investigation to determine where the fire came from. You can help speed up this process by sending photos or getting an adjuster onsite as quickly as possible. Once the remediation professionals have finished their assessment, make sure they provide their findings in writing, so there are no surprises in this regard down the line.
During this work, compare bids and line up vendors for replacements. I recommend hiring different companies to do remediation and reconstruction to avoid a conflict of interest. A company that only provides remediation might find more items that are salvageable. As opposed to a remediation company that also offers reconstruction, who might do excess demolition in lieu of drying to create a bigger construction project.
Once unsalvageable and hazardous items have been removed and the demolition is complete, the remediation company will wipe the walls of smoke and clean the structure. At this point, walk through the building. If it doesn’t smell right, but it looks right, request that the remediation contractor run a hydroxyl machine. Hydroxyl is the latest technology for removing, not covering up, odor particles. Do not accept this stage as complete without it being odor free.
We have never had anyone calmly call in a fire. But the more prepared you are, the smoother it will go.
1. Be proactive in choosing your vendors. At a minimum, you should hire a:
- board-up vendor
- certified hygienist in Zenvironmental testing
- remediation contractor
- hazardous remediation contractor
- general contractor
- flooring concractor
- dry-waller or painter
2. Know your policy and make sure your broker has sold you what you need. If you are trying to decide between two different companies, call a remediation company to find out if a specific insurance company is helpful when you have a claim. Some insurance companies are clearly in business for their stockholders.
3. Urge your tenants to purchase renter’s insurance. Make them aware of the consequences.
4. Make an emergency response plan for each property.
Fires happen. Let us know if we can help.
Maria Neumann is the owner of Water Damage Recovery. She can be reached at 510-351-7510.